To understand Whiteness we must begin with Blackness. In the emergence of Blackness, Whiteness finds its origin and its meaning. Though the African story traces back to the deepest reaches of history, the uniquely African American story begins in the fifteenth century. Driven together by the early Enlightenment currents of religion, economics, politics, and science. Portuguese explorers and African tribal leaders first beheld one another on the shores of West Africa. In spite of the years of interaction between European traders and the various kingdoms of the African coasts, these Portuguese sailors understood little of the people on whose shores they stood. Europeans knew almost nothing of the distinct cultures, diverse languages, complex political structures, and ancient frameworks of spiritual meaning that framed the lives of the various peoples of the African continent. Because of this, they characterized Africans in terms of the feature that most immediately distinguished them from Europeans: black skin.
It is not quite true that this emphasis on physical Blackness was an early expression of modern racism. Certainly Europeans believed themselves to be superior to Africans. Even so, their sense of superiority was based on religious grounds, that the people before them were pagan worshipers of false gods, and on cultural grounds, that the people before them were uncivilized and devoid of true culture. The prejudice was there, but the racism was still to come.
In the decades following the encounter, European colonial powers struggled to keep up with the insatiable colonial appetite for slave labor. The practical problem was where to get slaves. There were two obvious markets: the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe (from which the word slave is derived), who for five hundred years had been the favored source of slave labor in Europe, and the Native peoples of the so-called New World. But the constant war that resulted from attempting to enslave people who lived nearby and the ravages of disease made these markets impractical. The slaves would have to be found elsewhere: Africa. Unlike the Slavic and Native peoples, Africans lived a world away, reducing the need for endless border wars. And unlike the Native peoples, Africans proved more resilient to the scourge of European disease. These insights gave rise to a virtually exclusive focus on the trade of Africans. This trade, funded by newly formed European companies and enabled by partnerships with African traders, provided the apparently boundless supply of enslaved labor necessary for extending the religious and cultural ambition of European imperialism into the New World.
Because distinctions between the diverse linguistic, religious, and political backgrounds of the various African tribal peoples were invisible to the European traders, the human beings swept up in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade were simply designated as “Black.” Over time, slavery and a distinctly African form of Blackness became inexorably linked, constituting a significan shift in the meaning of slavery. Whereas, for hundreds of years, slavery was justified largely on religious and cultural grounds, now an additional ground entered the picture: Blackness. Thus, in the emerging cultural logic of enslavement in the New World, and for the first time in history, enslavement and Blackness were indivisibly bound together.
As with all social processes, this emergence took time. Initially Africans were enslaved not for their Blackness but primarily because Europeans viewed them as culturally unenlightened and religiously pagan. But in time a problem emerged. If, as the European powers claimed, the goal of imperial expansion was to bring culture to the unenlightened and religion to the unconverted, what happens when the project succeeds? What happens when the slaves adopt the master’s culture? What happens when the unconverted convert? On what basis do they remain enslaved? This was precisely the question facing slave owners in the American colonies at the end of the seventeenth century. One option, of course, was to free the slaves, to consider the imperial goals accomplished and to enfold the formerly enslaved into the empire. But that would be an economic disaster. Without slavery, the entire imperial project would fail. From the imperial perspective, slavery had to continue. This continuation required a new justification for slavery, Blackness alone.
Sometimes this justification required an extension of the meaning of Blackness. The mere color of the skin was not sufficient justification for the enslavement of thousands – and in time, millions – of people. Coloration needed to signify something more significant, needed to entail certain qualities that were themselves the basis of enslavement. Blackness, in other words, needed to refer to something that was more than skin deep. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a new meaning for Blackness emerged. Rather than simply a physical description, it became an account of personal capacity. To be Black was to possess lesser mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational capacity, it was to be inferior. It also came to signify moral deficiency, an innate tendency toward laziness, theft, duplicity, and lust. To be Black was to be dangerous. As a result of these notions of personal inferiority and moral danger, Blackness also came to take on a new meaning: social marginalization. Blackness became not simply a personal but also a social designation. Over time, Blackness came to indicate not merely dark skin but also dimmed personal capacities, a shadowed moral orientation, and a place at the hidden margins of the social order. By the middle of the nineteenth century, this new meaning had been intellectualized by science, baptized by churches, and, as we will see below,institutionalized across the structures of American life.
From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson